Lockups in Pennsylvania and across the nation are under a federal mandate to curb sexual abuse.
The rules, which took effect in August under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, require screening to identify inmates at greater risk of sexual assault — and those more likely to sexually offend — with an eye toward keeping them apart in housing and work assignments.
Prisons must also offer at least two means of reporting abuse, preserve evidence, ban retaliation against whistle-blowers, keep juvenile offenders away from adult inmates, and devise plans for adequate staffing and video monitoring. The presumptive punishment for any staffer found to have sexually abused an inmate is firing.
"You had corrections officials saying it's not so bad, it's not so bad, it's not so bad, and then you had the data saying it IS so bad, it is a problem, it is prevalent," said Fellner, who sat on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, the panel charged by Congress with devising the new standards. "I think at this point, everybody understands this is serious."
Pennsylvania's policy for preventing sexual abuse dates to 2004. New inmates must be screened, and anyone determined to be at greater risk of sexual victimization is supposed to get his or her own cell, or be placed in protective custody or in a special unit for inmates in danger. Pennsylvania prisons hold about 6,800 sex offenders.
"Inmates and their families should know that we do our utmost to provide for inmate safety," said Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.
But a scandal unfolding at the state prison in Pittsburgh shows that any policy is only as good as the people enforcing it. And prisons have a long way to go in that regard. The national Justice Department survey found that nearly as many inmates were victimized by prison staff as by fellow inmates.
In the Pennsylvania case, prosecutors and lawsuits allege systematic abuse of inmates serving time for sex crimes against children. The suspected ringleader, veteran guard Harry Nicoletti, faces 89 criminal counts after a grand jury concluded he raped and beat inmates, directed other prisoners to soil the food and bedding of his targets, and committed other abuses while working in the prison's F Block, for new inmates.
Nicoletti, 60, and three other guards charged in the case assert they did nothing wrong and accuse the inmates of lying. The defendants are awaiting trial.
The Corrections Department is compiling data on sexual assault in its prisons and has hired a contractor to study conditions behind bars.
Amendola, Sandusky's attorney, said he hopes his client won't become a statistic.
"I suspect they're going to take precautions against that," he said.
Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg contributed to this report.